The Season of the Heel: Kevin Owens and “Orange is the New Black”

Kevin Owens on Raw; Vee Parker on Orange is the New Black: Each was the villainous centerpiece of an entire season of their show’s run. Both came to save the day by injecting much-needed conflict during periods that could have easily been creative lulls for their respective shows. Vee appeared in OitNB at the beginning of the second season, at a point where the show’s ensemble cast of characters had been established, but outside of individual person-to-person drama, lacked purpose and direction as a group. Kevin Owens appeared on Raw in May, during the heart of what is often a post-Wrestlemania, pre-Summerslam build swoon for WWE. Vee and Owens are thematically similar in several key ways, and each was the perfect villain to shake things up and carry their respective narrative from point A to point C.

Both are corrupters of youth. Vee’s pre-prison drug business was built on exploiting young people who lacked means and support and forcing them to take dangerous, criminal risks. Her predatory instincts are best encapsulated in a scene where she has sex with one of her dealers, who sees her as a mother figure, just moments before sending him into a trap in which she knows he will be killed.

Kevin Owens might not be sending kids out to the street corner, but he has repeatedly made it clear that he has disdain for innocence and idealism as embodied by children. In his concurrent feuds with John Cena and Finn Balor, Owens derided each man by telling them with a smirk that his son looked up to them. This statement communicates two equally important messages: that Owens equates his son’s innocence and the values of his son’s heroes with stupidity, and, in a more sinister turn, that Owens has made it part of his mission to drive his own child to the dark side by tearing down his fundamentally decent heroes.

Many were upset to see Owens on Raw participating in the Brock-Taker pull apart and a six-man tag, saying he had been reduced to “just another guy” after his feud with Cena ended, but at least Owens wasn’t killed like Vee. It can be difficult to let go of great characters when their run is over, even evil ones, but it’s important to understand that their impact is not reduced just because they are no longer on top. Owens and Vee both had brief, spectacular runs that were extremely meaningful because they shook the entire universe in which they lived.

Part of what makes wrestling a great storytelling genre is that characters can be pushed up and down the card with relative fluidity as long as there’s an angle explaining the rises and falls. Is Kevin Owens positioned to be at the top of the Summerslam card? No. Could his budding feud with Cesaro produce great TV and help carry WWE through another traditional swoon once they get past Summerslam and into the NFL season? Yes. So don’t write Kevin Owens’ obituary yet.

Bad Things are Bad: What Bob’s Burgers Can Teach Us About WWE (Part 2)

In the opening moments of “World Wharf II: The Wharfening,” Bob Belcher finds himself a babyface in peril. Due to a moment of personal weakness and ambitious greed, our typically upright hero fell in with the wrong crowd, and as a result, faces a literally rising tide that threatens to drown him.

During Bob’s dark night of the soul, his flip phone, the perfect metaphor for the lack of professional notoriety and financial success he finds so irksome, becomes the principal prop in his struggle to survive. Ever the idea man, Bob devises plans to call first his wife Linda and then 9-1-1, but each time the strategy fails because he cannot be heard clearly through the phone’s low-quality microphone. As the situation grows more and more dire, it becomes clear that Bob does not have the tools to survive alone or even with the help of impotent comedy heel Calvin Fischoeder.

But, wait! Bob has a devoted family, who, even harboring lingering bitterness about his recent decision-making, refuse to give up hope and spring into action. They confront his weaknesses directly and work to understand them, as represented by their fevered translation of his garbled texts. When they look to their friends and neighbors to join in the search during the musical montage “Bad Things are Bad,” the members of the show’s community unanimously try to help as best they can, be they vain (Jimmy Jr.), mean (Zeke), stupid (Andy and Ollie), in a situation where it is physically difficult them to do so (Rudy), or even a previously-established petty adversary (Randy). The takeaway is that the vast majority of people, even clearly flawed people, are fundamentally decent and wouldn’t want harm to come to a neighbor, even at a time when they were personally unhappy with him.

This kind of physical, intellectual, and emotional legwork by supporting characters is present in stories and series with rich ensemble casts but too often conspicuously absent in professional wrestling. If wrestlers, be they babyface or heel, were portrayed more consistently as members of a community in which there are constantly evolving, complex relationships, then it would create a situation in which the things they say and do to each other actually affect the balance of their universe.

Instead, wrestling as a genre is a rather bleak portrayal of humanity. It often forgets that society wouldn’t function if every single person were a highly-driven alpha. The reason any common good can be achieved or even imagined is because a majority of people is willing to band together in spite of each individual’s flaws to try and protect good and decency from harm. The world portrayed on TV in wrestling is one in which backstabbing and pettiness are the rule rather than the exception. It is because their world is fundamentally broken in this way that no wrestling company on earth is capable of building a babyface locker room as impressive as the ensemble cast of characters on Bob’s Burgers.

Nice Things are Nice: What Bob’s Burgers Can Teach Us About WWE (Part 1)

Static characters are the enemies of storytelling. If nobody ever changes, then nothing of consequence can occur in a narrative no matter how many things “happen” in the plot. Herein lies one of the main flaws of WWE storytelling in the twenty-first century. New acts are introduced, given an initial push to establish who they are and what they stand for, and then they simply continue being that person for seemingly ever.

The first half of the two-part fourth season finale of Bob’s Burgers (“Wharf Horse”) displays exactly how a show in a genre built on well-established characters can still present dynamic, character-driven stories. The show’s principal protagonist, the titular Bob, is a long-established babyface, a decent guy who loves his wife, dotes on his kids, and does the best with what he’s given. He’s a character you can’t help but root for because he represents both the values and struggles that we as Americans project onto the working class. However, by the climactic musical number of “Wharf Horse,” (this is a post-Family Guy prime time cartoon after all) sympathetic babyface Bob has become the willing agent of chicken heel Felix Fischoeder.

How episode writer Nora Smith, responsible for many of the show’s strongest installments, gets there involves numerous tropes that will sound familiar to wrestling fans. Fanny, Felix’s new girlfriend, plays the pro wrestling manager role. She both motivates Felix to be as selfish as possible and promotes his message of greed to others. Like Heyman to Lesnar or Gary Hart to Muta, she is more fundamentally evil than her charge but needs him because on her own she lacks the power to make her corrupt vision come to life. She is even tied to arguably wrestling’s greatest manager, Bobby Heenan, when she proudly boasts that her fake eyelashes are made of weasel fur.

When first presented with Felix’s scheme to turn the moldering wharf into high-end condos, most of the characters are instantly enticed by the promise of money. However, much like Bret Hart, Bob isn’t “greedy for money; [he’s] greedy for respect.” For him, the draw is that the development would allow him to open a new restaurant where his high-concept burgers could be appreciated. To get high school English class Aristotelian, this is Bob’s hamartia. He is a likable, hard-working guy, but also irked by his lack of success and recognition. His ambition leaves him open to corruption, and before he realizes what’s going on, he has betrayed his family (as embodied by his daughter Tina’s love of the wharf’s carousel) and his fundamental values.

That is exactly what you don’t see on WWE television. Babyfaces are overprotected as “good guys” to the point where they never falter in their virtue until they make full-fledged heel turns. Even when he joined the Nexus, John Cena never did anything that contradicted his stance of “Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect.” That kind of stubborn, static, non-development of characters is what has kept WWE merely entertaining and not compelling.

Next week, in Part 2, we’ll look at the second half of Bob’s Burgers’ season 4 finale “World Wharf II: The Wharfening” in which we find our hero in peril, a spirited team of babyfaces working together, and heels getting their comeuppance.

Owens-Balor: The Title Match of the Century

The build towards Owens-Balor on July 4 in Tokyo has been so impressive because the angle itself is largely just fundamentals. The execution has been such that the journey hasn’t felt formulaic at all, however. The match is built around the most basic raison d’etre of professional wrestling: the championship title. The high-energy babyface Balor has proven he is amongst the best and wants the title as validation of his love and sacrifice. The bully heel Owens has proven he is ruthless and needs to keep the title so he can lord it over people and cover his insecurities. To sweeten the pot, the NXT Championship has been elevated to a level that nobody could’ve expected through its involvement in the Owens-Cena storyline on Monday Night Raw.

It’s really simple wrestling math: Over, worthy, popular babyface + despicable but respected heel + coveted title = money match. (And that formula doesn’t even take into account the “smart mark” anticipation of seeing two world-class workers have a match together!)

What made the build towards July 4 so unique, however, was the fact that both wrestlers were presented as highly-credible stars in completely different ways. The champion Owens was established as a legitimate top dog by feuding with John Cena on Raw, going so far as to score a pinfall win over the face of our era at Elimination Chamber. This made Kevin Owens the biggest major league cross-promotional wrestling star since at least Ken Shamrock in the early days of UFC and perhaps as far back as the territorial era. Being portrayed as a beast in both NXT and WWE proper at the same time elevated Kevin Owens from “indy star and developmental champion” to “World Champion-level star.”

On the other hand, Finn Balor’s journey toward this match has been much more about talking than wrestling, and, at times, much more about Fergal Devitt than Finn Balor. The “Finn Balor: The Demon Revealed” promotional packages that aired over the last three weeks of NXT set a new standard for character development in wrestling. They combined the best aspects of an HBO boxing promo, a handmade documentary, and an ESPN “30 for 30” piece. The videos had just enough of that WWE polish to look highly professional without feeling phony or over-produced.

What “The Demon Revealed” did more effectively than anything that’s aired on Raw since the build toward Taker-Michaels 2 at Wrestlemania XXVI, however, was make you care about the match on a personal level. Introducing Fergal Devitt as a human being not just a wrestler, having other familiar faces put him over as a decent guy, and showing clips of him chasing his dream around the world added a bonus layer on top of the classic babyface + heel + title formula. NXT fans already loved and respected Balor as an exciting athlete, but now they are rooting for him on a personal and professional level as well.

NXT may be developmental, but this is the best angle in wrestling.

Why Punk’s “Pipebomb” Matters, Even if He Doesn’t Anymore

By 2011, a decade removed from the crest of the wrestling wave, the WWE’s main event had settled into repetitive monotony. On any given Raw, Smackdown, or pay per view, fans could expect to see some combination of John Cena, Triple H, Randy Orton, Batista, and Edge.

There were several problems with this setup. All five men, while worthy main event workers, had become woefully overexposed through hundreds of hours of television time. Additionally, they were all holdovers from the Attitude and Ruthless Aggression Eras at a time when the company was pumping out new midcarders every week but seemingly no serious top acts. Fans caught on to the fact that the main event had become utterly static and starved to see a new face break into the mix. Then, finally, an opening came: Edge was forced to retire due to injury and a window opened.

June 27, 2011 was C.M. Punk’s chance to become that new guy. Granted, Punk had already been Mr. Money in the Bank twice, the leader of two different effective-until-they-weren’t midcard factions, and a multi-time champion, but he was undeniably second tier. He was an internet darling rather than a television personality, an ROH wrestler rather than a WWE Superstar, and a “skinny fat guy” rather than a chiseled powerhouse. In spite of all those marks against him in WWE’s mysterious book of “Reasons This Wrestler Can’t Be a Top Star,” somehow, the door was left open just a crack, and Punk blew it off its hinges.

Punk’s June 27 promo, known by many fans as simply “The Pipebomb,” was in no way, shape, or form a “shoot.” Anybody familiar with live television understands that directors in production trucks can crash to commercial breaks or cut mics when things get wildly pear-shaped, and since that was not done, it stands to reason that what he said was largely what he was expected to say. What was very much a shoot, however, was the jubilation with which fans heard Punk’s words. He gave voice to the faithful but disenfranchised, and in doing so took the backdoor route to being a top moneymaker.

With this shakeup came the corresponding shift in the WWE in-ring style. Consider the five main eventers listed above (Cena, Hunter, Orton, Batista, and Edge) and visualize each of them having a match – you can probably call the spots yourself. Punk’s rise, along with that of Daniel Bryan, led to a different kind match main eventing WWE shows, one influenced by the hard-hitting Japanese style and an imitative reverence for stars of the past. Had Punk not delivered his June 27, 2011 promo with such conviction and gotten over so impressively, that change may have never happened, and main events might still be wrestlers racing to get in their “Five Moves of Doom.”

Punk’s run after the “Pipebomb” wasn’t long – almost exactly two and a half years – but that promo casts a longer, more important shadow over WWE and its history than Punk himself.

Dusty Lives: Finn Balor, Starrcade ’83, and an Incredible Legacy

The news of Dusty Rhodes’ passing sent ripples across the American consciousness this week. To wrestling fans, Rhodes was an icon of an era, a powerful kingmaker, and a highly complex figure who had been a part of wrestling’s greatest high- and lowlights in five different decades. To those who know little about wrestling beyond that it’s a thing that some people watch, Rhoades still stood out as a larger-than-life figure. He was a man who you didn’t channel surf past regardless of how you felt about pro wrestling, a captivating figure who came to represent far more than a fake fight ending with a big elbow.

Though his death robbed the wrestling business of one of the last great geniuses from the era of great wrestling geniuses, Rhodes’ legacy can be seen continuing through one of WWE’s hottest commodities, NXT. The build towards Finn Balor facing Kevin Owens in Japan for the NXT Title feels especially marked by Dusty’s touch. The match bears incredible similarity to the main event of one of the most important shows “The American Dream” ever helped put together: Starrcade ’83.

To compare Balor-Owens to Race-Flair may seem far-fetched, considering one represented two men at the pinnacle of the profession while the other is for a developmental title, but if you scale down the splendor that was Starrcade, the tremendous storytelling and structural similarities are clear to see. Both matches feature grizzled, physical heels taking on prettier, more athletic babyfaces. They are both David and Goliath stories in which “hometown” youths take on ugly bullies who came in from the other territory. Each match is strategically located in the place where the hero is most likely to get a megastar reaction: Flair in Greensboro and Balor in Tokyo.

On this week’s episode of NXT, a promo package hyping the upcoming match delivered the pitchline, “Finn Balor Arrives. Tokyo, Japan. July 4th.” The line was remarkably reminiscent of Scarrcade ’83 subtitle “A Flair for the Gold.” Each statement is basically promotional lingo for, “The babyface wins.” An essential part of the build is tipping the audience that they can be assured of consummation and don’t have to worry about being swerved or let down.

Therein lay the brilliance of Dusty Rhodes: he never forgot that for all the cleverness and complexity that can bookers and fans breathe into wrestling, at the end of the day people want to see the babyface win. Even when it was impractical in the large picture, Dusty’s instinct was always to give the people something that looked like a babyface victory. It was that desire to provide the fans with an uplifting moment that led to the creation and eventual over-use of the now-infamous “Dusty Finish.” In a sense, Dusty’s booking was like Marxism: it was highly humanistic and sought to make people happy but was hampered by the over-complexity of all the essential moving parts. Dusty may be gone, but the best parts of him live on.

Set Up For Failure: The Deeply Flawed Structure of the WWE Tag Title Elimination Chamber

The WWE Tag Team Title Elimination Chamber match contained talented wrestlers, including a bona fide top heel team and a bona fide top babyface team, featured good action, and delivered a definitive finish. However, the match fell well short of what it could have been — an assertion of the Tag Team Titles as a featured prize – because of poor structure. Whoever put this match together should not be putting together matches for pay per views.

All matches are reliant on a good start to set the tone for what follows. This match had a hard time getting over because it started with the two least established teams in the ring. The Lucha Dragons are popular, and The Ascension are disliked, but neither is the team that people paid to see. Cesaro and Kidd should have been one of the first teams in the Chamber to give the match and show the hot start it needed.

Of course, when Cesaro and Kidd did enter third, they needed to work harder than they should have to recover from the lull that opened the match. The structure of the match really let The Masters of the Universe Down. If they weren’t going to begin the match, Cesaro and Kidd should’ve been set up to enter to a monster pop, and neither happened because WWE sent out the wrong teams to start the show.

Once they were in the match, Cesaro and Kidd absolutely shone on offense. The crowd popped for their spots, but the realization quickly set in the last three teams were New Day, Los Matadors, and Prime Time Players. With even the most innocent fan subconsciously knowing that the heel champions would be out last, it was apparent that a few minutes of rather inconsequential wrestling would follow. Given the barely-established nature of Lucha Dragons and The Ascension and the barely-credible nature of Los Matadors, the wrestlers were left with only one tool to do to get the crowd invested: stupid spots. Kalisto and El Torito obliged.

Then, momentarily, the match looked poised to turn around and get serious when The Ascension eliminated both the Dragons and Matadors in quick succession, but their immediate loss to the Prime Time Players undid all of that good storytelling and simply reinforced the old WWE trope that established main roster veterans can always beat relative newcomers easily. What followed was a slow-paced, shapeless period of wrestling between two teams who had no storyline heat behind them.

Then, there was Cesaro’s elimination by The Prime Time Players. When there’s one set of over babyfaces in the match and they are not finalists, you will be in trouble with the crowd. Luckily, people are into chanting “New Day sucks,” so the match wasn’t a total loss, but the frustration from the audience was palapable during the match’s final minutes.

There was so much potential in the ring to open the Elimination Chamber show, but the ball was badly dropped due to poor structure.